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Foreign Service struggles to fill tough jobs

Despite a record number of people applying to join the Foreign Service since Sept. 11, the State Department is having a difficult time filling hardship posts overseas, as U.S. diplomats shun jobs over security and lifestyle concerns.

The problem is especially acute in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, whose strategic importance has surged because of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

The former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, resigned her post in May after security concerns kept her separated from her two teenage daughters. In Saudi Arabia, a combination of geographic isolation and repressive social dictates has discouraged applications and left in place an unqualified staff, according to a study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

But the problem is far broader. Sixty percent of U.S. embassies and consulates are designated hardship posts for reasons including security threats, poor hospitals and schools and oppressive weather. From Nigeria to Kazakstan to China, all considered hardship assignments, U.S. missions report a vacancy rate 50 percent higher than in more-developed nations.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is overseeing a recruiting drive to hire hundreds of Foreign Service officers. In an encouraging sign, more than three times the normal number of applicants have taken the Foreign Service exam since Sept. 11, propelled, officials say, by a surge of patriotism.

But interviews with new officers underscore a conundrum. While the newly minted diplomats are more eager than ever to serve their country and express interest in hardship assignments, they are quick to say they would avoid places that might pose a risk to their families.

A typical response is that of Heidi Arola, who begins training as an officer in September. Arola, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is more willing than many to take a post in a country with few amenities, but she draws the line at security. "Serving at a post with high security risks does concern me though, as I am sure is true for most officers," she said.

State Department officials say that staffing certain posts abroad has long been tricky and has required a certain amount of coercion and finesse. But the problem has been worsened by a general shortage of employees, the product of flat State Department budgets through much of the 1990s. Powell hopes to hire 1,158 employees by 2004.

"When you have a lot more jobs than people to fill them, they can pick and choose," said Ralph Frank, the State Department's director of career development and assignments. "They say, "Given the choice, I'd rather have Paris.' "

Frank is developing a proposal to make hardship posts more attractive, including higher pay, shorter tours and more home leave.

The study by the GAO found that staffing shortfalls in hardship posts have resulted in junior officers working well above their pay grade or skill level, leaving sensitive work in the hands of inexperienced diplomats.

In Kiev, Ukraine, for example, about half the Foreign Service positions were filled by inexperienced officers, with several of them working in jobs at least two levels above their grades.

As the State Department scrambles to fill the holes, it is turning to employees who do not have adequate language skills. In China, 62 percent of the Foreign Service officers did not meet the language proficiency requirements for their positions, the GAO found. In Russia, 41 percent of the officers do not speak Russian.

The result is that U.S. diplomacy is compromised at a time when it most needs to be effective, as Washington presses for progress toward peace in the Middle East, seeks to thwart terrorist attacks around the globe, and plans for an invasion of Iraq.

"Ultimately, when this happens over and over again in hundreds of slots in the world, it has to have an effect on our ability to accomplish our foreign policy objectives," said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., who requested the GAO study, which was released in June.

Although career officers are supposed to be available for posting anywhere in the world, the assignment system allows them to bid on posts. In analyzing data for this summer, the GAO found that nonhardship posts like London, Toronto, Madrid, The Hague and Canberra, Australia, were highly sought, with 25 to 40 bids for each opening.

On the other hand, numerous hardship posts received two bids or less, including Karachi, Pakistan; Shenyang, China; Lagos, Nigeria; and Jidda, Saudi Arabia. In the 2002 assignments cycle, 74 mid level positions had no bidders, including 15 jobs in China and 10 in Russia, the GAO found.

"People are all too willing to take the comfy job rather than get out on the cutting edge of diplomacy," said Dennis Hays, a former ambassador to Suriname and a veteran of several hardship assignments. "People look at you as if you're insane if you talk about going to Pakistan or Somalia."